Saturday, 8 June 2013

On re-reading Ralph Waldo Emerson - two comments, and some remarks on Joseph Smith


From the middle 1990s for a decade, I was reading and re-reading Emerson with tremendous avidity - not only in a literary way, but as a guide for life.

Having not looked at him for several years, and not since I became a Christian, I have returned to re-read some favorite bits and pieces in the past couple of weeks - and was struck by two things.


1. Emerson is a really good writer; I mean really good. The quality of his prose is unique and unsurpassed (that is, other writers are equally good, but in different ways) - I find it elating, intoxicating, almost too powerful to bear for any length of time.

2. Emerson's anti-Christian agenda is now blazingly clear and obvious to me, from almost everything he ever wrote and said; as is his staggering egotism/ pride, and these are linked. Emerson's work is a vast and unbounded, extended assertion of himself, his potential and his adequacy against anyone or any thing (including God) that tries to constrain or direct it.


(Emerson was raised as a Unitarian and became a prominent Unitarian minister - and Unitarianism is already anti-Christian in its profoundest implications - although the first generation of Unitarians refused to acknowledge this, and generational inertia meant that the fundamental anti-Christanity of Unitarianism took a while to emerge. So, Emerson was never a Christian, although perhaps he supposed he was - but nonetheless he found the rebel sect of Unitarianism to be already stultifying, empty and spiritually dead: which was a just criticism since it amounted to merely a system of secular ethics and an ungrounded and unjustifiably exclusive usage of Christian scriptures and form loosely associated with an impersonal theistic God. Naturally this rapidly slid into exactly the kind of eclectic 'spirituality' - that we now term New Age - which Emerson pioneered with such glorious eloquence.) 


I conclude that Emerson is, exactly has his contemporaries saw him, a terribly perilous writer! - precisely because he is such a great writer, and has so many stunning insights - yet ultimately these are put to the service of a doctrine of such extreme, such total self-centredness that I struggle to comprehend it.


Perhaps Emerson's greatest and most valuable (and most often repeated) insight is that each person must appropriate the world for himself and in his own terms; a living religion (that is to say any true religion) simply cannot be just a following of rules and rituals.

To put it as Emerson did in an early work, to be properly alive, each individual must experience (again and again, day by day, indeed hour by hour) their own personal revelation - they must experience direct and divine communications of reality.

For Emerson this imperative was pretty-much the entire aim of life - so that the ideal life became in one sense that moment of revelation timelessly filling all; in another sense (because, experience seemed to show that these moments did come to an end) an incessant search for the next moment of revelation - life as a sequence of such moments.


But Emerson's error, which led him into paradox and the evil advocacy - if not practice - of Pride as a principle of life - as indeed the only principle of life; was to reject the past, to reject the unity of humanity, to perceive himself (his soul) as the only thing that was really real - to argue for a subjectivism so extreme as to amount almost to solipsism. 

In his burning desire to shed the constraints of history and society, which seemed to be shackling his imagination, and focus all meaning on his own individual moments of revelation (the total affirmation of Me! Here! Now!); Emerson destroyed the basis of humanity, of sharing, shape and purpose - and consequently his influence (among those who actually read what he wrote and try to live by it) has been substantially pernicious.


What was needed and what was necessary was to accept Emerson's assertion of the absolute necessity of personal revelation, albeit perilous, as an addition (or restoration) to Christianity.

This absolute and inflexible demand for modern, personal revelation, I perceive as the point of unity between Emerson and the other great long-term spiritual influence born in the United States at almost exactly the same time: Joseph Smith, the Mormon 'living prophet' of modern, latter day revelation.

Joseph Smith could have endorsed Emerson's cry by which he opened his first great published work Nature -

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories and criticism, The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes. Why should we not also enjoy an original relation to the universe?


The religious difference between Emerson and Smith is essentially that Emerson took this demand to behold God face to face, and enjoy an original relation to the universe as his sole aim and principle, while Smith added it (and its products, such as the Book of Mormon and his other collected revelations) to existing Christianity.

Smith thus achieved what Emerson, in his scandalous 1838 address to Harvard Divinity School, had declared was impossible:

I confess, all attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain. Faith makes us, and not we it, and faith makes its own forms. All attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason, — to-day, pasteboard and fillagree, and ending to-morrow in madness and murder.  


Even as Emerson wrote his speech, Joseph Smith had already built a new city (the first of three) as headquarters for the saints in Kirtland, Ohio; and the years since the above words were spoken, Smith's 'Cultus' - with its 'new rites and forms' added-to, modifying, re-interpreting existing modes of Christianity - was (contrary to Emerson's characterization of it as 'vain') indeed 'established'; and has continued to grow into a major world religion - and has been neither a dead religion of pasteboard and fillagree (rather, a tremendously motivating religion which sustains great devoutness and other-worldliness), nor has it ended in madness and murder.

But, on the other hand, a stripped-down New Age version of Emerson's spirituality of individualism and subjectivism has merged with mainstream secular Leftism, and grown and grown to become the dominant mode of thought in the West almost entirely discarding Emerson in the process.

(And quite naturally so, since Emerson was not necessary to the development of New Age spirituality - rather he was a prophet, herald or advance guard of it.).

But what a fascinating divergence from such close roots and similar demands are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joseph Smith - both emerging in the North Eastern corner of the USA in the 1830s!